Marine Corps News November 13, 2007
HADITHA, Iraq -- (Nov. 09, 2007) -- This time last year, 21-year-old Lance Cpl. Michael Mathes was working for the local sheriff and fire departments in Waller, Texas. It was his duty to serve the people of his small community, protecting them from dangerous situations and providing a safer environment for everyone. These days, Mathes walks down the streets of a different neighborhood and in a different uniform, but his basic duty hasn’t changed. For the next several months, he will be responsible for the welfare of Iraqi civilians living in Haditha and his brothers-in-arms, as he proudly serves as an infantryman with 3rd squad, 1st platoon, Company L.
Mathes joined the Marines Corps more than two years ago as a reservist for 1st Battalion, 23rd Marine Regiment, stationed in Houston. Early this year, he volunteered to deploy and was attached to 3rd Battalion, stationed out of Montgomery, Ala.
He said he did not enlist, or deploy, for the money, college tuition or sense of adventure, but rather out of an obligation he felt toward his country.
“Honestly, I feel every able-bodied American should serve in the military,” Mathes said. “You come to places like this and you see how good we really have it.”
Now that Mathes is in Iraq, he sees firsthand the progress being made. He has heard of past horrors, but said now people here have moved on, wanting a better way of life for themselves and their children. Most of Haditha’s 70,000 residents have embraced the Marines, casting out the terrorists who hid bombs in their streets, closed local schools and uprooted families. This city that use to be a safe haven for terrorists is now a sprawling community with markets and restaurants, construction and playgrounds.
“We owe very much to the Marines,” said a local Iraqi policeman, known only as Cash. “The Marines do very good here, people here like the Marines and it’s very safe now.”
Cash is the most outspoken of all the police here. He has seen three deployments of Marines come and go. He knows the streets like the back of his hand; the residents are like members of his family. He said he is happy to see the progress and is glad to be a part of it.
“I’m very proud of my city. We are good people and we will do anything to keep the terrorists off our streets,” he said. “If (the terrorists) come back, we kill them.”
The police and the Marines are not the only ones fighting to keep this Euphrates River town safe. The local townspeople, many living here for generations, are doing everything they can to keep the peace. This is a tremendous benefit for the Marines.
“We have the population on our side, they’re helping us. They’ll tell you if somebody doesn’t belong here,” said Mathes. “It’s not because they want a reward, it’s because they don’t want these people here any more than we do. You always have somebody watching. People on the streets will come up and tell you if someone doesn’t belong here.”
These days the streets are clean, the climate is calm, the people are smiling. There are no more gun battles, no more mortars, no more war, just rebuilding. This is something Mathes is glad to witnessing.
“The citizens are trying to turn it around. Every day we come out on patrol, you see them either rebuilding the streets, the sewer lines or something. They always have some kind of project going to try and better this place,” he said. “They know that we’re here to help them, so they’re trying to make the best of it, just like we are.”
Mathes himself grew up on a large farm that has been in his family for generations. His father broke away from the family tradition of farming and joined the police force. Many years later, Mathes did the same thing, but as a teenager. His grandfather was the only other family member to serve in the military, the Army. Mathes wanted to wear the Eagle, Globe and Anchor, a choice he has never second guessed.
Mathes said the toughest aspect of his deployment was the distance and time that separates the self-described country boy from his loved ones. He misses life on the farm, he misses his job, he misses his family, but he wouldn’t change a thing.
“I miss work. I love what I do, that’s my career. At the fire department, I love hearing that alarm go off,” he said. “But, I love what I do here. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. Every day I walk these streets I know we’re doing this for the right reasons. You got people saying we need to leave this place, I don’t believe it. It’s coming slowly, but it’s coming. They need to have what we have.”
As Mathes patrols the streets of the new, safer Haditha, he shakes hands, smiles and waves, and has nothing but good things to say about the people, their culture and their willingness to rebuild. He sees the classrooms crammed with laughter, markets filled with commerce, a city overflowing in peace. Just like the rest of Al Anbar, the terror has left, fleeing for other places to hide.
It’s hard to say where Mathes will be this time next year. He hopes to finish classes and become a paramedic. The police and fire departments have held his job. It’s likely he’ll be the same ole country boy: simple, hardworking and modest. He will always have the memories with 1st platoon, the people of Haditha, the living conditions, the weather and all the little things that make it a deployment. Afterall, he said this is what makes him proud to be an American.